As digital technology has evolved over the past 20 years, programs and websites promoting piracy have left an enormous impact on the recording industry. So much so, that bands and record labels have placed a strong emphasis on live performances and merchandise for profit. As upcoming bands and independent labels look for a successful business model to follow, they should look no further than Umphrey’s McGee, the progressive rockers who formed on the campus of Notre Dame University in 1997. While other bands looked to sell albums and attract major labels, the guys of Umphrey’s played as many shows as they could and developed a strong grassroots following.
Now celebrating their 17 years together, the band is set to promote the release of their eighth studio album, Similar Skin, on their own label, Nothing Too Fancy Music. In my conversation with Joel Cummins (keyboard, piano, vocals), we discussed the group’s original business model and their newly innovative Headphones & Snowcones program, one that rents out wireless headphones to a select number of fans per show, allowing them to hear the concert directly from a soundboard mix. Of course, we also talked about Similar Skin and future plans for their very own record label. Check out what Joel had to say below:
On your latest effort, Similar Skin, you guys created a very concise, rock and roll record.
To be perfectly honest, it is something we have been attempting to employ on every studio album in the past 10 years. For this record particularly, we really wanted to focus on that rock and roll sound. We had a number of newer songs that really fit the description and a number of older tunes that we felt fit that as well.
Did “trimming the fat” make the process more difficult or was it more of a fun challenge?
This is definitely the most fun I had making an album. With so much of our music, it is all over the place stylistically. Immediately, we had a clear vision on what sort of things were going to work on this LP. It helped make things a lot more cohesive, compared to past albums that may have been all over the map.
This was also released on your own record label, Nothing Too Fancy Music.
Yup. After going through all of the other options, we decided this was the right album and the right time to do it. We all felt really confident in the sound and how it represented Umphrey’s McGee. It has been a ton of extra work, but it has certainly been more rewarding. The fan experience and the amount of support we have received also speaks to that. We are generally known for being a live band and we have gradually gotten a little more recognition as a studio band. Having the album debut at 49 on the Billboard charts is a huge success and another step in that progression.
Was the idea of self-releasing a full-length in the works for a while?
It has been something that we had considered when we were looking at different offers for Death By Stereo. I don’t think the decision to realize it was until about September or October. So we had about eight or nine months leading up to the release to get everything together and really work on it.
Looking ahead to the future, we don’t have to answer to anyone in terms of putting out the music that we want to put out. It gives us a great handle on the artistic vision of it.
Absolutely. More freedom and it strengthens the relationship between the band and the fans.
Yeah, I think there are a lot more positives to Nothing Too Fancythan there are negatives. We are still diving into a lot of it all, which is nice.
Any other plans for the label as of yet?
I can’t expand on them as of yet, but there are a lot of things that are going to happen that we think fans will be excited about.
Before you stop by Philly and Asbury Park, you guys have been performing at some summer festivals. How have the shows been going so far?
Great. We probably played for our biggest festival audience in Bonnaroo, which was huge for us, and we absolutely loved that. More recently, we did Electric Forest, which was great in a different way. It is more centered on electronic music, so we saw it as a huge opportunity to play for people who might not have heard of us before. It’s been a huge year for us, between putting out the record on our own label, playing Summer Camp, and then onto Bonnaroo, London, and then finishing off the last leg at Red Rocks.
Coming back and playing at the Tower Theatre for the first time is certainly a dream come true on so many levels. There have been so many classic shows and artists that have played there over the years. We are just thrilled about that. We did not make it to The Stone Pony last year, which was certainly disappointing, but to go back there and play it this year is great.
Do you intend on implementing Headphones & Snowcones for some of these shows?
I certainly hope so. The Headphones & Snowcones program has been a mega success and people are really digging it.
I would imagine there were a lot of nerves or fears in terms of performing the first show that Headphones & Snowcones was implemented?
Going into it, we were somewhat nervous about it. The major fear was the idea of possibly isolating some people and maybe taking away from the vibes of the live show. It turned out to be this really cool social thing. I give so much credit to our fans because we have heard so many stories on how the audience would pass the headphones around and friendships have been made with them (laughs).
Could you see a future expansion in this program?
We actually just bought about 30 more Sennheiser wireless packs. We have been doing about 25 a night, so we may have the ability to expand to about 40 or 50 sets a night.
Through fan-curated sets and performances like UMBowl, your live performances certainly put yourselves ahead of the curve.
For a lot of people, our music may be an acquired taste, and if they don’t come to the live shows, it may be hard to understand. We want people to come to the shows for the first time and be overwhelmed and blown away. We think once we get people through the doors at the live show, we have a good shot of giving them an enjoyable night.
Not only do great live shows create memories and connections with the audience, but it also benefits the artist in multiple ways. Touring may provide more income than album sales, which can fund future albums, tours, etc.
It’s kind of funny because people tell us we have been doing it right from the start. Growing a grassroots following, touring around the country, and now we can draw people anywhere in the country. When we were younger, we were doing that so we could get the attention of a label and hopefully get signed and a record deal (laughs). We really got lucky and fell into this more successful paradigm in playing over 100 shows a year and really making our living that way. We have invested so much time, being a band for almost 17 years, playing all of the cities in the U.S. for 12 years, and developing a following of fans between the ages of 16 and 50 years old. It’s nice to be able to have that diversity.
All Things Umphrey’s allows the fans to check out setlists of shows dating back to 1998. Does that have any effect on the construction of diverse setlists?
The All Things Umphrey’s site is pretty awesome and it is something we have been using for the past few years to form our setlists. It allows us to say, “Oh, we haven’t played this in Asbury Park in a couple of years, I think we should play it tonight.” It helps us introduce older songs, keep them fresh, and it allows fans to go further down the rabbit hole and see what we are all about.
It definitely is an incredible way to keep things fresh and avoid redundancy. I would imagine that also helps refresh you guys when you play.
Exactly. Right now, we are playing about four shows a week, and we don’t have a need to repeat any songs over four shows, which keeps things fresh for us and the fans. We have a five-night run on New Year’s this year, which we have never done before, and we have enough songs now to where we will not repeat anything for five shows. It will certainly be interesting and we will be digging deep.
Umphrey’s McGee will be performing at the Tower Theatre in Philly on Aug. 9 and The Stone Pony Summer Stage in Asbury Park on Aug. 10. Similar Skin is available now. For more information, go to umphreys.com.